When excitement surrounding the development of Peter Jackson’s film adaptations of The Hobbit started to pick up around late 2010, and news regarding the mammoth cast was coming out every other day, no single casting announcement got as many people talking as Evangeline Lilly’s. Alumni of Lost and The Hurt Locker, she was confirmed to be playing the elf Tauriel, whose name translated in elvish as ‘daughter of Mirkwood’.
Tolkien fans were appalled and thrilled in equal measure. Yes, she was not a character from the original book, but with a trilogy of films to fill and not a single woman even appearing within Tolkien’s novel let alone speaking, everyone was well aware of the need for more female representation. Cate Blanchett reprised her role as Galadriel, but with flexibility and as a different race and class of elf to those we already know, a character like Tauriel really did need to exist in The Hobbit.
Little is objectionable about Tauriel herself – quite the opposite. She is the Captain of the Guard, an accomplished physical fighter with a sense of humour and a strong moral compass. She is flawed and young and reckless but, driven by her own conviction of what is right and what is wrong, defies her king and father figure in the processes of helping those in need. She, alongside Katniss Everdeen, has been likened to the goddess Artemis; female figures in touch with their power, who are assertive and strategic, and who are models of care and integrity. All said, she’s pretty cool.
The issues that people find with her are not even that she ended up having a romantic plot, per se. No one would ever suggest that the epic deeds of the cool action hero in your standard summer blockbuster are ruined by his getting the girl. To suggest that a female character being in a relationship somehow lessens their worth is, when you think about it, pretty insulting. But there is a difference between having a love interest, and being reduced to one.
It could and should have been perfectly possible for Tauriel to exist as both a fully-developed character in her own right, and still be of romantic interest to another. She certainly keeps her agency after she falls in love, and uses it as a motivation to disobey her king and join the battle. Logically, we know this. But sadly that is not quite how it translates on screen.
Tauriel, who we are shown has passion and values before she falls in love, soon appears to have little motivation outside of her love interest. It becomes, ten minutes after she first appears, upsettingly clear that she appears to have existed largely to fall in love with Kili, the young and handsome dwarf prince. After she leaves Mirkwood she has only one scene – her and Legolas, scoping out the orc stronghold– where she comes across as ‘Tauriel the elf’ instead of ‘Tauriel the elf who is in love’.
Ignoring for a minute the idea that Tauriel and Kili’s relationship lessens the significance of that between Legolas and Gimli in Lord of The Rings, some criticisms really are valid. Though by no means on principle, the integrity of Tauriel’s character took a real hit when she fell in love. Based on what we had seen of her beforehand, the actions which she certainly would have carried out anyway – leaving Mirkwood, healing Kili, fighting in the Battle of the Five Armies – come across as shallow and petty. Instead of adding to it, Tauriel’s romantic plotline comes at the price of the better part of her character. What is more, you can barely buy into the romance in the first place!
In Tolkien’s book, the company of dwarves spend a month trapped in the elven dungeons before Bilbo comes up with a plan to free them. In Jackson’s films, this month is contracted down to a single night. Despite chemistry in the well-scripted, beautifully acted scene that Tauriel and Kili share, there just doesn’t seem to be enough there to justify the sheer magnitude of lingering facial shots and cringeworthy light effects that follow.
Worse still is the forced love triangle between her, Kili and Legolas. Included against Evangeline Lilly’s wishes and Peter Jackson’s original statements it adds nothing to the story, other than to make Legolas come across as a bit of a brat. What’s more, in it Tauriel is almost reduced to a trophy; in a number of scenes she loses her agency, doesn’t get to make her own decisions, and is instead an object won by the most worthy man vying for her affections. Talk about objectifying. Objectifying, and completely unnecessary. Tauriel’s romantic plotlines were shoehorned into a trilogy of films that, despite their debatably unnecessary length, could not accommodate the number of changes already made.
Author Vicky Delany summarised things mostly neatly, proposing ‘the Delany Test’ in the process. It asks, do female actors play people? Or do they only play women?
Tauriel is a character created to be a woman. Yes, she is the Captain of the Guard, but were part of her storyline not to fall in love with the handsome prince, we can be fairly certain that whoever played the Captain of the Guard wouldn’t have been female. None of the other elf fighters or soldiers are female, even in wide-angle shots featuring hundreds of characters. None of the dwarves, either. It apparently just did not occur to the filmmakers that characters can just be female. Without that defining everything they are. In the final film of the trilogy, the women of Dale join the battle. Just before they do so, they proudly announce that, as women, they will join their husbands in death as in life. That’s… nice.
Peter Jackson’s Hobbit films did women a disservice. They created an interesting, passionate female character with morals and motivation and yet placed her in a plotline which managed to paint over these things and remind audiences that female character’s actions are invariably centred around men. For a character added to bring diversity to a cause, she is disappointingly poor representation. Media needs more women, but women who are more than the simple fact they are women. Who are more than pretty faces and love interests.
Tauriel deserved better.